The brightly colored flowers of the opium poppy plant stand out clearly from the air, especially if there are thousands of them spread over many hectares.
But such visibility is not helpful when trying to keep them hidden from law enforcement agencies.
So at least one criminal organization in the northern state of Chihuahua took a logical yet innovative course of action in an effort to stay a step ahead of the law — they cut off the flowers’ petals.
When the poppies are devoid of their flowers they blend in better with the more traditional crops of chiles, onions and alfalfa, for which the region is better known, when viewed from the air.
But in the end it wasn’t enough to avoid detection by military forces, who this week discovered 14 hectares of poppies and marijuana concealed between agricultural fields in the rural municipality of Coronado.
It is suspected that women and children carried out the flower-cutting exercise as the work calls for delicate hands.
Rodrigo Israel Castillo, the commander of the 66th infantry battalion in the city of Delicias, explained that the practice is becoming increasingly common.
“We are seeing these kinds of practices [such as] removing petals more and more frequently. Aerial reconnaissance is not enough; we always explore by land and that’s how we were able to locate these plantations. The flower’s color is very characteristic and very intense from the air. Criminals know that and seek to conceal it.”
The military took control of the area without incident. The caretakers of the crops were apparently interrupted as they prepared to eat, and fled the scene.
Soldiers found healthy and mature plants that measured close to a meter in height although most of the plants’ pods had already been cut to extract the opium gum, heroin’s precursor.
The site was irrigated with water from the Conchos River and is thought to have been in operation for around three months.
Soldiers also discovered a makeshift campsite with evidence that it had been hastily abandoned. Food, clothes, blankets and personal belongings were left behind on the ground that was strewn with beer cans.
Authorities believe up to 100 people could have been working and living there.
The seized plants will be incinerated to ensure that the seeds are also destroyed. Authorities estimated that the seizure represents a US $650,000 blow to the grower’s profits.
“A kilo of poppies can be used to plant a hectare. That hectare produces 11 kilograms of opium gum, those 11 kilos produce a kilo of heroin, a kilo of heroin produces 20,000 hits,” Castillo explained.
Around 800 square meters of mature marijuana plants were also confiscated from the site.
The army has destroyed more than 25,000 hectares of poppies in Chihuahua during this six-year presidential term starting in December 2012, and over 104,000 hectares nationally.
Source: Milenio (sp)